Difficult Situations

There are good reporters and bad reporters. Most are concerned with honesty, accuracy, getting the story straight and getting it first. A few are openly biased or flagrantly antagonistic – reporters who try to make you lose your cool and say something you'll regret. All reporters, however, have one primary goal: to get information. And whether they are good or bad, they may use interviewing techniques that are difficult to handle.

Loaded questions
The reporter lists three to five items to build a case and then asks the "loaded" question. Begin by either accepting or countering the statements, then bridge to your message.

  • Question: "Only X percent of your faculty are women. Only X percent are black. A mere X percent are Chicano. Don't you think this displays a history of discriminatory hiring practices?"
  • Answer: "While your statistics are correct, your conclusion is not. Let's look at the record today. This year, X percent of our hires were women and minorities. UCI is committed to achieving faculty diversity."

Unacceptable alternatives
The reporter asks you to choose between one extreme or the other, neither being acceptable.

  • Question: "Would you rather sacrifice research excellence for teaching excellence or become a leader in science at the expense of undergraduate education?"
  • Answer: "Neither extreme is acceptable. At UCI, teaching and research programs complement each other, and we are committed to excellence in both."

Hypothetical situation
The reporter creates a hypothetical situation and follows up with a specific question. Don't respond to the hypothetical; state your message.

  • Question: "Imagine that there was a donor who wanted to give $10 million to establish a basket weaving school at UCI, when the campus has no intention of starting a basket weaving school. Would you accept the gift and start such a school, or would you tell the donor to get lost?"
  • Answer: "I don't know anything about your hypothetical situation. Your question seems to concern our gift acceptance policies. At UCI, we work very hard with our donors to ensure that their interests are served while our needs are met."

If reporters don't give up, don't try to go back and answer in a manner that will make them happy. You might rephrase your answer, but stick to your message.

  • Question: "But what would happen if the interests weren't the same? Would you take the money?"
  • Answer: "Again, you're referring to a hypothetical situation that I don't know about. We work closely with our donors on a personal level to ensure that they and the campus gain mutual benefit."

Commenting on others' comments
Essentially, the reporter is asking you to speak for someone else. Don't do it, especially if you did not hear the individual make the statement yourself. It's possible the person was misquoted.

Divide and conquer
Reporters may want to divide you from your superiors or colleagues by asking, "How would YOU handle this?" If something is out of your area of expertise, say so. Then bridge to your message.

  • Question: "How would you go about increasing faculty diversity?"
  • Answer: "I am not the one who does the hiring at the university. But I can tell you it is every faculty members' responsibility to create a welcoming environment for all cultures."

False premises and conclusions
Reporters' questions may contain false premises. Respond by countering immediately or a viewer may accept the false premise.

  • Question: "When are you going to improve undergraduate education?"
  • Answer: "I believe students are getting a good education now, and one of the things we are doing to ensure this is..."

Reporters may paraphrase one of your answers to get you to agree to it and then they use only your agreement to the new statement.

  • Question: "You mean students didn't used to get a good education?"
  • Answer: "Let me restate my answer so that there is not misunderstanding. I believe students..."

Negative entrapment
Never repeat a reporter's negative statements. Reporters often ask questions in a hostile manner. When responding, turn the sentence around and stress the positive. Use your own words; don't repeat a reporter's hostile question filled with buzzwords. Remember, they will quote you, not themselves.

  • Question: "Some students have told me they get a lousy education at the University of California."
  • Don't answer: "I don't think the education is lousy."
  • Do answer: "I believe students get a very good education at the university."

Continue with an example of an education program. Transition into your message, which may be that research conducted at the UC keeps faculty at the very top of their fields.

Machine gunning
The reporter asks a string of questions simultaneously. Let them build a trap. Use body language (your hand) to stop it. Then respond by simply answering the one question that you most want to answer, ignoring the other parts, then bridge to your message.

Interrupter
The reporter interrupts you while you're trying to answer a question. Respond politely, yet firmly: "Let me finish answering your last question first..."

Embarrassing silence
Beware of the reporter who remains silent, encouraging you to ramble on and on. Once you feel you've answered the question, stop. If you continue, you may end up providing them ammunition with which to shoot you. There are several things you can do to fill an embarrassing silence. You can ask, "Do you have any other questions?" You can ask, "Have I answered your question?" or you can just remain silent.

Set-up
If you feel the reporter is setting you up, chances are you're right. Reporters often think they know the answers before they've asked the questions. Let them know that you are the expert.

Ambush
It's not uncommon for reporters to ambush a news source outside their office or home. Respond as if the reporter had called you on the phone. You might ask what the story is about and when they need the information. Tell the reporter when you or someone else will be able to get back to them. You are not obligated to consent to the ambush interview if you are unprepared or the time is inconvenient.

When asked a question on top of a question
Slow down. Patiently answer one question at a time. The reporter often will look rude in these situations.

When heckled by a questioner
Be sensitive to the feel of the interview. You may want to answer a question very briefly or be silent while the reporter continues. Keep your cool.

When asked a tough question
Avoid such platitudes as, "That's a very good question" or "I'm glad you asked that question." The audience recognizes such devices as obvious stalls. It is all right to pause briefly before responding. Dead time is seldom aired on the news, and silences obviously can't be quoted in print. If your interview is live, a short pause often will give the impression that you wish to make a thoughtful response.

  • Avoid saying, "Well, as I said in my speech" or "I already told you..." These responses sound as if you're insulting the reporter.
  • Use the reporter's first name, showing that you still feel friendly in the face of the difficult questions.
  • You may want to rephrase the question, giving your audience a chance to hear it in your words: "If I understand your question correctly, you're asking..."
  • In all cases, if you disagree with something a reporter or talk show host has said, you must counter it. If you don't, the audience can only assume that you agree.